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Impact of COVID on Global Power Competition

by Matthew Woollen, NESA Alumnus and Program Analyst, United States Air Force Special Operations Command

Despite an early belief, particularly in the United States, that the world would return to “normal” in short order following the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s now obvious the global impacts of the virus are long term. The duration and degree of these impacts remains unknown. Worldwide vaccine distributions are inequitable. Vaccine effectiveness has yet to be fully proven. The virus continues to mutate, and it remains uncertain how effective current vaccines will be against future adaptations. And nations are addressing the containment of the virus in dramatically different ways. How COVID-19 impacts competition among nations will shape global relationships now and in the future. This article will examine just a few of the impacts of COVID-19 on global competition in the areas of politics, ideology, information, military, and global economics, and will offer considerations for the future.

Politics

A key to global and regional stability is the ability for nations to share ideas, deal with crises, and create solutions and forward relationships. Summits, personal meetings, and cooperative gatherings of international leaders, diplomats, and other professionals are essential elements to positive political change. G20 summits, for example, result in sidebar discussions among world leaders that often translate into policy development and shared initiatives.

In his recent book, “A Promised Land”, former President Barack Obama described his ability to influence commitments to climate change by directly confronting Chinese leaders at the 2009 Copenhagen conference. Personal meetings between world leaders, such as the Nixon visit to China in 1972, create significant global impact and pave the way for cooperation and political change.

COVID-19 will greatly limit the ability for world leaders to meet. Gatherings of political leaders come with large entourages of other government officials, assistants, media, etc. At a minimum, differing COVID policies and concerns will make these meetings nearly impossible to arrange safely for the foreseeable future. For now, virtual meetings like the February 2021 G7 meeting will be the norm, making the personal discussions and additional private meetings that typically produce the real results “virtually” impossible. It’s likely this may hinder cooperation resulting in greater political autonomy and less international cooperative decision-making leading to new areas of global competition.

Reactions to COVID-19 will result in new alliances. China and Russia have both reached out to nations around the world providing vaccines and protective equipment fostering deeper relationships, new relationships, and furthering their influence.  A Feb 18, 2021 Washington Post article stated that Russia, for example, has provided the Sputnik V vaccine to nations like Serbia, enabling it to distribute 13.5 doses per 100 people in contrast to the EU’s average of 5.25 doses. Nations with differing travel policies will impact overall relationships. For example, closed borders will impact immigration and trade policies, thus creating political friction that must be addressed to avoid opening the door to potentially unfavorable new alliances among nations with like-minded approaches to COVID.

Finally, political commonality will accentuate shared technological approaches to COVID vaccine and treatment research among a specific few nations, hindering a needed global approach. This has the potential to leave many countries behind, exacerbating the developmental problems of smaller nations and extending the timeline for managing the virus globally. This pandemic cannot be addressed nationalistically but must be met with an integrated effort among world powers. The response to the virus has created another area of political global competition. The United States must overcome its slow-start response to COVID and take the lead in international efforts or risk being left further behind.

Ideology

Successful responses to the virus allow state and non-state actors alike to boast that their particular methods represent the right path for the world. Conversely, a slow and lethargic approach to dealing with the virus, a position the United States finds itself in currently, results in little to no faith in that response as the example for the world to follow.  It’s difficult for the United States to promote democracy as the exemplary ideology, for example, when it outpaces the rest of the world in total numbers of COVID cases and deaths. How a society responds to COVID-19 will serve as the battleground in the realm of ideological global competition.

Countries who recognize the value in advertising a successful approach to the containment of the virus may be prone to misrepresent the number of cases and deaths within their countries. According to the World Health Organization COVID dashboard on Feb 17, 2021, China, with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people, for example, had reported 101,576 total cumulative cases and 4,840 total deaths. When comparing that to Canada’s 826,924 total cases and 1,139 deaths, (a population of 37.1 million), it’s easy to see why many world leaders, including the Biden administration, have challenged the WHO on China’s reporting. With such low comparative numbers, it would be easy for China to boast that their state policies resulted in successful management of the virus and should be adopted as the global standard.

Information

Information is the lynchpin to global competition. Good or bad, right or wrong, President Trump’s tweets had worldwide impact. The Arab Spring movements of 2011, for example, were fueled by the far-reaching power of social media. Controlling the narrative is essential in shaping influence and maintaining prominence.

Given the above description of potential false COVID reporting and the use of that information to highlight strengths and weaknesses, the global competition for information dominance is ever important. Nations need to know you can successfully lead or they will not follow. Given the United States’ slow start to battle COVID successfully, as well as the overwhelming lead it maintains regarding the total number of reported cases and deaths, the U.S. has a major public relations issue to resolve.

To maintain its dominance as a world power, the U.S. needs to represent itself as a dependable nation and one that can be counted one as a reliable example. That requires winning the global information competition by dispelling false claims and accurately representing its own commitment to leading the way. The fact that Britain, for example, hosted the February 2021 G7 summit on COVID response and not the U.S., may lead other nations to ask why, if the U.S. wants to be a global leader, didn’t the new administration host this summit.  There are likely good reasons, but they were not widely broadcast, creating the perception of the U.S. as a participant and not a frontrunner.

Controlling the narrative will be the key to U.S. efforts to regain the faith of the world. Countless polls have indicated that worldwide opinions of the U.S. government are at an all-time low. The U.S. could counter this by making an aggressive effort to broadcast its recent commitment of $4 billion to WHO’s COVAX effort. This would demonstrate a commitment to leading the global effort to combat the virus and go a long way in presenting the U.S. as a leading player in the COVID response.

Military

As the Pentagon seeks a balance between the counter extremist mission and ensuring the ability to compete with “near-peer” competitors, COVID constraints play a major role. In the fight against the virus, readiness has been the frontline concern for military leaders and will continue to dominate the Department of Defense’s (DoD) approach. The DoD has formulated a prioritization scheme for the vaccine, but inoculation is currently voluntary. The military cannot afford a “breakout” within its ranks as it not only impacts the force’s ability to conduct combat operations but dramatically impacts access to other nations critical to meeting national objectives.

Protocols for mitigating COVID-19 have greatly slowed the ability to move forces around the world. Rotations to and from theaters are complicated by differing testing and quarantine requirements throughout the world. These restrictions continually change, slowing U.S. logistics.  Competing militarily means establishing positions and influence around the world. Combating China’s growing influence in the South China Sea, for example, requires access to nations like Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam, and others. The U.S. has to work with and around the COVID restrictions imposed by those countries or allow China’s influence to grow further.

COVID restrictions within the United States represent an impediment to military training as well. Access to some of the better training areas in California, Nevada, New Mexico, and others, have resulted in either the cancellation or downsizing of major exercises. Where exercises are allowed in these areas, personnel are required to follow quarantine protocols that result in lost training time both before and after the exercise. This has a dramatic impact on unit readiness, requiring military leaders to find creative ways to prepare their personnel for employment.

Economic

The economic impacts of the pandemic will most likely have the greatest effect on global competition. Economic approaches to the virus will produce haves and have nots as nations either successfully navigate the crisis or they don’t. The U.S., for example, is spending trillions of dollars on COVID relief in order to stabilize the economy, mitigate unemployment caused by COVID restrictions, and maintain the financial stability of individuals and families through extensive stimulus packages. This is a short-term solution that if not balanced against other programs will create long-term recessionary impacts. As nations continue to rely on a global economic structure, U.S. financial strength will greatly influence global economic health. How the U.S. manages its financial response to the virus will determine its own economic wellness and in turn the economic health of the world.

Economic mismanagement, due to COVID, could result, as well, in opportunities for other nations to strengthen their economic position in the world. Should the U.S. overspend, for example, as it seeks solutions to COVID economic impacts, nations like China could further advance their growing position as an economic leader. As nations spend volumes on vaccination research, research to learn more about the virus itself, and research concerning future viruses, other nations may be compelled to sit back and await the results or outright steal the intellectual efforts without obligating their own resources. Disparities in national financial strength will result in a changing economic landscape and resultant global power base.

Finally, comparative advantages may be found in medical technologies.  If one subscribes to the belief that COVID-19 will not be the last of the global pandemics, medical research will become a paramount necessity. Obviously, some nations have the resources to conduct extensive research while many do not. But those who do not have the resources to conduct expensive research and medical treatments may offer other vital capabilities. For example, protective equipment such as masks, shields, and basic hospital equipment, may be manufactured by other nations for less cost. This has the potential to create comparative advantages that may drive new trade relationships or strengthen existing relationships that greatly impact global competition.

Conclusion

COVID impacts are not only global but long-term. COVID-19 isn’t the last virus the world will face. As the world becomes smaller and globalization less avoidable, competition among nations will be influenced more by responses to this virus and others than traditional challenges to world power.

Politicians will gain or lose global prominence and influence based on how they lead their nations through the pandemic. Alliances will be created through like-minded political approaches, thereby shifting global power. As the world’s leading nations struggle with the ability to meet face-to-face, those alliances may become smaller, encouraging very specific regional or ideological connections.

Successful approaches to the pandemic will allow nations to promote their own ideological and political approaches as the global example. Conversely, failure to recognize the influences of the virus, or ideological impediments to combatting the virus, may leave nations behind in the quest for global prominence. Additionally, areas of the world that fail to address the virus successfully, due to ideological beliefs, could change the strategic value of those areas of the world.

A nation’s ability to lead the world is often a direct result of how the rest of the world perceives its ability to do so. Perceptions are created by information and those who control information control global power.  Smaller nations will follow the lead of the nations that offer them the most benefit.  With combatting the COVID virus at the forefront of most every nation’s priorities, many will gravitate to the nations they perceive to be more capable in managing the pandemic. That determination will be the direct result of a global leader’s ability to manage information distribution as well as countering negative information and information warfare.

If global power continues to be influenced by military power, COVID management within military ranks will be essential for nations seeking global influence. Readiness, logistical strength, and the ability to establish military partnerships will all be a direct result of how a nation successfully addresses COVID impacts. This accentuates the common dilemmas for national leaders but from a different perspective. Leaders must decide if they are to focus their national resources on the domestic fight against the virus or on maintaining a healthy military capable of global power projection.

Finally, global economic strength, perhaps more than any other area, may be influenced by a nation’s approach to the virus. Balancing national economic strength with a safe eradication or mitigation of COVID will be a delicate matter which will determine the world’s winners and losers.  Overspend and you face a weakened economy subject to major recession and inflation. Underspend and you become the nation that can’t deal with the virus, greatly weakening global appeal.

The competition for global power has shifted throughout time.  Ideological alliances, geographic positioning, and political and military strength have traditionally sorted out the world dominant states. COVID-19, and future pandemics like it, may now become the leading factor in who leads the world into the next 50 years.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

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